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Whatever Happened to Labor?

By September 3, 2012 One Comment

There is a dispute whether it was Peter McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters or Matthew Maguire of the International Association of Machinists who thought up Labor Day.  McGuire or Maguire, Labor Day was first celebrated by the Central Labor Union of New York City in 1882. 

I have it on good authority the Central Labor Union is not the same group as the “central planners” Paul Ryan warned us about last week.  “That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.” Who was he talking about?  That was the most bizarre thing I heard out of the Republican Convention until Clint Eastwood showed up.  But I digress. . . .

Now that we are 130 years into Labor Day, as you rest from your labors, I hope you might reflect on the legacy of organized labor.  As you do that, I simply ask when was the last time you heard a young person say, “I want to be a union boss when I grow up.”  Or, put another way, when was the last time you heard or saw a positive reference to a labor union?  My unscientific guess is that it was the 1979 movie Norma Rae. 

Labor and Labor Day aren’t what they used to be.

Like every holiday, Labor Day has devolved into a retail opportunity.  On top of that, its primary functions seem to be marking the end of summer and, more significantly, the beginning of football season.  Ironically, the National Football League is engulfed in a labor dispute this Labor Day with its referees.   No one outside of the disputants cares who has the high moral ground.  It’s a million dollar issue in a billion dollar league, threatening to mess with one of our most sacred public institutions.  While Roger Goodell cements his legacy as a person who enjoys wielding power, I wonder whatever happened to organized labor.

On the one hand there is the general perception that unions are as crooked as the politicians that denounce them.  (Don’t blame me for that metaphor.  Blame Robert Zemeckis:  “His legs are strong, Mrs. Gump.  As strong as I’ve ever seen.  But his back’s as crooked as a politician’s.”)

On the other hand there is the reality that (outside of Wisconsin) the only real union action we see these days is in professional sports, where millionaires squabble with billionaires over who gets the largest slice of pie.  Isn’t the crux of every labor issue the eternal tug of war between competing self interests?

But labor unions are consistently demonized as the bad guys in our culture.  I have five in-laws that are public school teachers and union members and there isn’t a Trotskyite or central planner amongst them. 

I’m amused, frankly, at the anti-labor sentiment by people who organize themselves all the time.  Aren’t political parties organized?  Didn’t Governor Walker of Wisconsin have to organize his supporters to beat back the challenges to his incumbency caused by his own actions against labor unions? 

Let’s be honest.  Let’s not say the problem is the union. The problem is the union’s self-interest conflicts with other interests.  And the corruption in unions is no different than the corruption in churches or governments or anywhere else.  We know power and money corrupt. 

So this Labor Day, take a deep breath, get ready for football, mark the end of the summer, realize this is the only life you are going to have, and take the unions off the hook. Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.  You and I both know that all we like sheep have gone astray and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Who really holds the high moral ground in any of our disputes?  We always think it is our side, but we humans have an amazing capacity for self-deceit in the cause of self-interest.  We saw that last week in Tampa.  Brace yourself, because we’ll see it again this week in Charlotte.  In the meantime, enjoy the day off.



Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 

One Comment

  • Jim Geertsma says:

    The development of organized labor is often credited with the growth of the middle class. Now as the middle class seems to be dwindling, the labor unions are losing their power. Do you see a connections between the two? I appreciate your perspective.

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